Say the Poulsbo, Wash., Police Department gets a 911 call about somebody with a mental health problem disturbing the peace in a public area. The cops show up and arrest that person. Poulsbo is a small town, so the person winds up in Kitsap County Jail, a half-hour’s drive south in Port Orchard.
“More often than not, the Port Orchard [police] will have an interaction with them,” said Penelope Sapp, a lieutenant in Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office.
Maybe the person goes back to jail. Perhaps they wind up at Western State Hospital for a mental health evaluation. Or they go to a homeless shelter. Or maybe they have a health problem and it’s an ambulance ride to the nearest emergency room.
Each of those interactions represents a weight on the social security net. Each one of them is a cost for a department or organization trying to keep its costs down.
In common parlance, these people are often called “frequent flyers.” It’s not a new problem — in the local emergency services ecosystem that exist between ambulances, hospitals, police, fire departments, homeless shelters, mental health service organizations and caseworkers, many different communities have struggled to find ways to break the cycle these people keep traveling through.
“There are people who will call 911 … 19 times a day, and that requires law enforcement to respond to that,” Sapp said.
Kitsap County thinks it’s found a way to bring that number down — by simply sharing information better. The county is one of the earliest partners for RideAlong, an early stage startup that got its start working closely with the Seattle Police Department.
Briefly put, RideAlong is a means of building a profile for individuals whose names frequently run through the 911 system — with a focus on people who have mental health problems. When various people interact with one of those individuals, they can rely on the knowledge of others who have interacted with that person before.
It can be very simple information — for example, to not bring up a person’s parents when talking to them. Or to ask what a person’s name is, because they have dissociative identity disorder.
Key to the system is that it helps people involved in different organizations know what the best action is to take in a given situation.
“Our app is almost like a cheat sheet to make the best referral for that person in the moment,” said Katherine Nammacher, CEO and co-founder of RideAlong.
The company has met with some early success. In Seattle, RideAlong studied a group of about 200 people who the city’s police interact with more than almost anybody else — the “frequent fliers,” as it were. They documented a 35 percent drop in 911 calls related to those people in the six months after Seattle PD started using RideAlong, relative to the six months prior.
Extrapolating the resources saved between the police department, hospitals, courts and jails, RideAlong estimates the city saved more than $400,000 by avoiding those 911 calls. It’s not easy to say exactly what’s changed with those individual cases, but it’s safe to say it’s keeping them out of jail.
“There are a lot of resources spent on this population that can actually be streamlined and not duplicated,” Nammacher said.
The problem is not so much that the people in the emergency services ecosystem don’t know how to deal with high utilizers. It’s that different people have different information, like puzzle pieces scattered across a county. By putting all the information in one place, any person with access to the system can do whatever has worked before.
There’s a lot of information scattering in places like Kitsap County, where the Sheriff’s Office is working with four municipalities, two Indian reservations and the jail to use RideAlong as a common tool.
The office was actually already involved in a crisis intervention committee trying to figure out how to effectively share information when it found out about RideAlong.
“We’ve always been banging our heads, how are we gonna share this information?” Sapp said.
What the lieutenant thinks is the tool’s biggest strength is its ease of use. The office has response plans for many people, but they’re PDFs and they aren’t easy to find.
“If you’re a deputy you don’t have time to go through the records system or go look through a PDF,” she said. “Like, we could write response plans day and night … but when you’re in a crisis you don’t have time to go through that information.”
RideAlong attaches information about an individual along with the information coming out of the dispatch center. A link to a response plan will show up in the computer-aided dispatch system; one click and the responder knows what everybody else who has worked with that individual knows.
Importantly, the office isn’t going to put data protected by Criminal Justice Information Services or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act into the system, and only the cooperating agencies will have access to the information.
“A responding officer doesn’t care if somebody is bipolar … they don’t care what kind of medicine they’re on,” Sapp said. “They care about, ‘How are we going to get them to calm down and get them to [a service] in a positive way?’”
In addition to Seattle and Kitsap County, RideAlong is also working with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs as well as the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which operates a team of people who deliver medical care in the field.
“There’s a lot of work that is being done around homelessness that is very similar to what San Francisco is doing, especially in 2018 because of how visible the growing population of individuals currently experiencing homelessness is,” Nammacher said.
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.